2013 marks the centenary of the birth of French writer and humourist Pierre Daninos, the creator of Major Thompson, the French stereotype of the Englishman abroad, carrying a neatly rolled umbrella, with a moustache, and inevitably wearing a chapeau melon. When Daninos died in 2005 extensive obituaries appeared in the British press. He had published prolifically, and the exploits of Major Thompson sold over a million copies in France, as well as being translated into some 30 other languages.
Yet Cambridge has very few titles in the original French. Clearly previous generations of Cambridge librarians felt that works by Daninos did not merit inclusion in an academic library. Were they correct? Oxford librarians felt slightly differently, and acquired some 20 titles. The British Library has still more, fulfilling its remit to collect works on British culture and on Britain’s place in Europe.
Daninos had achieved literary prominence as early as 1947, when he won the Prix Interallié for his novel Le carnet du bon Dieu (of which COPAC lists copies in eight UK libraries not including Cambridge). Cambridge clearly decided he was of small literary merit. The writer of the Guardian obituary, Richard Boston, obviously concurs, despite drawing comparisons with Montesquieu’s Les lettres persanes (as does the obituary in the Independent) –
Whether the joke of Thompson was at the expense of the French or the English didn’t much matter since it wasn’t all that funny. Nor was it original. André Maurois had done it rather better as long ago as 1918 …
But from our 2013 collecting perspective, is literary merit the only consideration which matters? Are books by Daninos not of interest as classic French humorous writing, and as illustrations of the French view of the British? The shrinking number of universities offering degree courses in French, and the resultant dispersal of their libraries’ French language collections, distressing though that is to a librarian, has at least given Cambridge a chance to broaden its range and collecting perspective. Over the past 2 years we have generously been presented with more than 2000 French books from the University of Bradford and the University of the West of England, many of these by such authors such as Bernard Clavel, Jacques Lanzmann, Georges Simenon, Henri Troyat – and Pierre Daninos – who had previously been only poorly represented in our holdings. We have benefited not only from the texts themselves, but also from the expertise of academics and librarians at two other institutions which had taken a rather different view of what constitutes an interesting French collection.
– David Lowe